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One Worldwide Product Identifier: A Crash Course in Changes to the ISBN

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One Worldwide Product Identifier: A Crash Course in Changes to the ISBN

by Eric Throndson

Let’s face it. You always suspected that all the hoopla over Y2K was a little over the top. And when the lights stayed on and your bank account remained in the black (or the red, as the case may be), you were even more sure of it.

The truth can finally be told: Y2K was really just a dry run for Y2007.

The entire book industry—from publisher to patron—needs to get ready for ISBN-13. On January 1, 2007, the ISBN will grow to 13 digits. This may appear to be a rather simple thing at first blush, but its ramifications are very real and far-reaching.

A quick refresher: the ISBN consists of a group identifier, a publisher’s prefix, an item number, and a check digit. The check digit is calculated through an arithmetic formula and is used by computer systems to validate the preceding 9-digit “core.” With ISBN-13, all current 10-digit ISBNs will be getting a prefix of 978. This will necessitate recalculating the check digit, so that the last digit of the ISBN-13 will not be the same as the last digit of the ISBN-10. Some good news is that the check digit will be calculated using a different arithmetic formula, and the X in the last position of some ISBNs will be a relic of history.

Example: ISBN-10: 0140179178

ISBN-13: 9780140179170

After all available blocks of 978 ISBNs have been assigned, prefixes of 979 will be assigned. Expect to start seeing some ISBNs with 979 prefixes in 2007.

To Cope with an Abundance of Identifiers

Why is this happening?

Two reasons. The oft-cited opinion is that we are running out of ISBNs and need the 13-digit version to add to the pool of available numbers. Although we are not in imminent danger of consuming all the 10-digit ISBNs, it is true that adding the 978 and 979 prefixes doubles the available supply of numbers.

The other reason for migrating to a 13-digit ISBN, which is often overlooked, has to do with the plethora of product identifier numbers now in use. It is not unusual for a product to have an ISBN, a UPC, and an EAN. As a result, confusion abounds. Publishers, distributors, and retailers waste time restickering books with different barcodes. Different segments of the industry pick different identifiers to be their systems’ standard number. Barcode readers get confused by the myriad zebra stripes adorning items. Acquisitions librarians struggle to find the appropriate product identifier when placing orders.

Clearly, a system that had just one product identifier for each item would save a great deal of time, money, and ibuprofen. Well, “they,” whoever “they” are, must be listening. The UPC (Universal Product Code) and ISBN are being integrated into the 13-digit EAN (or International Article Numbering) system (EAN originally stood for European Article Numbering).

The end result will be just one worldwide product identifier number. The correct name for the number is EAN.UCC-13, although the book industry has adopted ISBN-13 as the colloquial term.

To be sure, the International ISBN Agency and all the other structure around the ISBN will remain; but now the ISBN will become a valid EAN.UCC-13. No longer will a book need an ISBN for the library and trade businesses and a separate Universal Product Code for mass market. It will have one 13-digit number. Likewise, videos and music will no longer get a UPC for North American retail, an ISBN for library channels, and an EAN for European distribution. One number will suffice.

Tracing the Transitions

To understand how a UPC-12 can become a valid EAN.UCC-13, it is helpful to know that the UPC we are most concerned about is the UPC-12, and that it—much like the ISBN—has a manufacturer’s code, item number, and check digit. The first digits of the EAN.UCC-13 specify the country of origin. The product in your hands originated in Moldova if the first three digits are 484. A first digit of 0 specifies North America, so any existing 12-digit UPC can be converted into the new number by simply adding a 0 at the front of the existing number. Adding the 0 does not change the check digit, so turning a UPC into a valid EAN.UCC is easy.*

ISBNs are a little trickier. When the international book community wanted to integrate the ISBN system with an existing barcoding system, it approached EAN, which agreed to the new quasi–country of Bookland. Bookland was assigned prefixes of 978 and 979 in the EAN system. So just as EAN.UCC-13s that start with a 484 indicate that the product is from Moldova, codes that start with a 978 or 979 indicate that the product is from Bookland—which, of course, means that it is a book or book-related.

Adding the 978 or 979 prefix to the 9-digit core of a 10-digit ISBN and recalculating the check digit produces a 13-digit number that is also a valid EAN.UCC. When this happens, the goal of rolling the EAN, UPC, and ISBN into a single numbering system will be realized.

A Glimpse of the Next Two Years

If you have been paying close attention, you have noticed that the EAN.UCC-13 has been in use on books for quite some time. While the line above the barcode on a back cover may say something like ISBN 0-7357-1117-8, under the barcode you will see 9 780735 711174. This is the number—complete with the 978 prefix and a recalculated check digit—that is actually encoded in the barcode, and it is in reality the ISBN-13.

Between now and January 1, 2007—when every product is scheduled to get a single 13-digit product identifier in the EAN.UCC system—you will see book products identified by both their 10-digit and 13-digit manifestations. Books published after that date will begin to have just the 13-digit number assigned.

The good news is that several committees within the Book Industry Study Group have been studying this issue, and BISG has published policies and standards to ensure a smooth transition to a 13-digit world. See “The Transition Timetable” in this issue and www.bisg.org for help in understanding and following the steps in the transition.

Just as Y2K was inevitable, so is the change from ISBN-10 to ISBN-13. The ISBN’s evolution will affect virtually all transactions between publishers and their customers. Regardless of your situation, beginning the process now will ensure that you can get through it successfully with time to spare. Or you can ignore it and pray that the metaphorical lights stay on anyway. I just wouldn’t bet the bank account on it.


* Note that there is no mandate that 12-digit UPC codes be replaced by 13-digit codes, and some manufacturers may opt to continue using 12-digit UPCs ad infinitum. However, the Sunrise 2005 initiative from the Uniform Code Council urged general retailers to become able to scan 13-digit numbers. It appears that there will be a very high level of compliance. With this hurdle removed, manufacturers will probably begin to adopt the EAN.UCC-13 as their standard product identifier.

(The original version of this article appears as “Acquisitions in an ISBN-13 World” in vol. 16, no. 6, December 2004/January 2005, of Against the Grain. To learn more about this publication for librarians, visit www.against-the-grain.com.)

Eric Throndson is Manager, 3rd Party Systems Integration, at Baker & Taylor and chair of the Internet Commerce Committee of the Book Industry Study Group, which is setting the standards for EDI use in the book industry.


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